Wednesday, September 3, 2014

American Moebius: The Fosterian Kingdom of Jack Katz

The Space Explorer's Club, the fifth volume in Titan Comics' complete First Kingdom by Jack Katz, is out. Not only is it another handsome volume in the series, but my favorite so far, offering the first new installment of the cosmic saga in a quarter century. His cosmic vision might best be described as that of an American Moebius (Jean Giraud), except that rather than the intermittent and ecstatic burst of insight of his French counterpart, Katz has been carefully constructing an epic he has been committed to for more than 40 years: part Hugo Gernsback old-school sci-fi, part Jack T. Chick New Age Hell-and-Brimstone gospel tract.

I have been a fan of Katz since the original First Kingdom was issued as 24 single issues by Comics and Comix and later Bud Plant in the 70s and 80s, and completed my collection only belatedly in the 1990s. In the late 70s when the work began to appear, it would have been described as groundlevel, a term suggesting something in between underground and mainstream. Other titles that were grouped in that amorphous genre were Cerebus, Elfquest, Star*Reach, otherwise underground titles such as No Ducks, and titles from that Michigan company Power Comics like Kevin Hyde and Mike Gustovich's Cobalt Blue as well as other creators such as T. Casey Brennan. Steve Gerber's Howard the Duck and Marvel's adaptation of Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian, particularly as illustrated by Barry Smith, seemed to offer a mainstream bridge from superheroes to that quasi-illicit world of the slightly-more risque material.


Katz' work was never explicitly sexual, although the nude figure was and is central to his conception, with particular emphasis placed on the covered pubic region (I have always called his work groinal). I have to admit I have never read much of it; a self-described "Fosterian," Katz adopted a practice of pasting on huge chunks of text that appear to have been generated by an IBM Selectric typewriter, in a not-particularly attractive face, and pasted those onto his artwork, degrading what would otherwise be quite beautiful tableaux, in emulation of Hal Foster's Prince Valiant. Aside from the aesthetic or formal objection I have to this practice (it is just hard to digest unrelieved blocks of text coupled with little else but mise en scene master shots), both Foster and Katz assume a pretentious, pseudo-literary voice which makes their text not only difficult to process with the images, but almost impossible to comprehend in any case. Titan has wisely upgraded the text in their reprints, but have chosen a pseudo-hand-lettered font that emulates comics lettering, instead of an attractive typeface. If you're going for bookishness, why not go all the way? Also, the new lettering is extremely small.



The Space Explorer's Club, however, has much bigger type, which is easier to read, and far more attractive. I still haven't read it all, but I have dipped into it extensively. It is the somewhat Gnostic story of a human couple who are journeying through the universe and perhaps more than one reality to discover their demiurgic programmer's intentions, and the meaning of life. This has always been Katz's obsession, and part of the mystique and grandiose ambitions that even fans of First Kingdom, like myself, who actually have only looked at the art, admire about the series.


The new volume also demonstrates an improvement over the earlier work in that the art is drastically simplified. Katz's imagery was always as dense as his prose, and here the claustrophobic backgrounds and rich textures give way to offer a clearer view of his compositional strengths. His figure drawing, never exactly graceful but always majestic (an anatomically-obsessed combination of the stumpy George Bridgman and the elongated El Greco), manages here to be at least more fluid and free; it's some of his best work ever. The first 90 pages or so appear to be either scanned pencils that have been darkened to a higher contrast digitally, or inked with something like a Uni-Ball roller-tip pen, rather than the crowquill or brush of the earlier work. For the remainder of the book, Katz seems to revert to a brush, spotting blacks more frequently along with employing a thicker outline, but refrains from congesting his visuals to the degree of previous decades. Certainly this is as much a symptom of Katz's advancing years as it is a conscious streamlining, but nevertheless it is a welcome development.

Not everyone will like the new, more simplified Katz, but Katz is an acquired taste anyway. The art of The Space Explorer's Club evokes large-scale cartoons for WPA murals, and his multi-figure compositions and especially his spaceships (which resemble the mobiles of Lee Bontecou) are incomparable. There is nothing like Katz in comics, or for that matter in American or contemporary art, and it is great to have more of his work available now more than ever.

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